A P R I L 1 9 9 9
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
The Peacock Room
by Linda Merrill.
Freer Gallery of Art/Yale,
406 pages, $65.00.
The Peacock Room, a masterpiece of interior decoration, explosively
ended James Whistler's association with his previously generous and patient
patron, Frederick Leyland. The row was noisy at the time and has given rise to
speculation, interpretation, legend, anecdote, and publications ever since. Ms.
Merrill's publication proposes to sort myth from fact and also to describe the
development of Whistler's aesthetic theories and working techniques, relating
both to the progress of art in late-nineteenth-century Britain and France. The
text is serious and full of information, but it takes a long time to get to the
peacock fight. When one does, the affair has a curiously modern ring. Whistler
had been given an unspecific commission and left to carry it out with no direct
observation by Leyland. The result was far more elaborate than Leyland had
expected; he did not appreciate the magical gold and blue birds, and the cost
overrun was worthy of the Pentagon -- if the Pentagon had been available for
comparison. Leyland refused to pay full price. Whistler went broke but in a way
had the last word in the dispute, for Leyland is remembered as the man who did
not recognize a masterpiece in his own dining room. The masterpiece now resides
in the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art, where it is steadily
admired by visitors. The book is illustrated generously if not always
effectively -- a three-dimensional room cannot be reduced to a flat page.
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The Return of Little Big Man
by Thomas Berger.
432 pages, $25.00.
Jack Crabb, alias Little Big Man, the protagonist of an earlier novel by
Mr. Berger, reappears to continue his memoirs, which broke off with the battle
of the Little Big Horn. Jack is now aged 112, with mind and memory as clear as
ever. His recollections start with the murder of Wild Bill Hickok and end at
the Chicago World's Fair. Along the way Jack meets every great figure of
western lore, with a few unavoidable nonentities thrown in. Mr. Berger's
knowledge of frontier history is formidable. His ability to convert it into
intriguing fiction derives from the narrator he has invented. Jack is a
relative of Huckleberry Finn -- an intelligent observer whose lack of formal
education leaves his mind unhampered by sentimental clichés and
conventional assumptions. Jack sees events from unexpected angles, making old
tales look new.
Mr. Dimock Explores the Mysteries of the East
by Edward Cameron Dimock.
224 pages, $18.95.
The author is a distinguished authority on Indian religions and a
translator of Bengali literature. He has spent much time in India. In this
collection of essays he recalls only the comic or pleasant experiences, and
there were many of both in that vast and varied country. The episodes are
reported with unpretentious charm, while the author's occasional excursions
into linguistic or philosophical questions add to the interest of his text -- an
unusual accomplishment in scholarly writing.
An Elegant Madness
by Venetia Murray.
317 pages, $29.95.
Ms. Murray's study of "High Society in Regency England" is not
revisionist history. The period she covers (1788-1830) was one of hedonism,
extravagant display, sexual irresponsibility, vulgar ostentation, and gluttony
(the menu for one royal dinner covers three pages). There were numerous fads,
from the folly of Cossack pants to the worthy enthusiasm for clean cravats. Ms.
Murray provides specific details on the doings of dandies, prostitutes,
influential hostesses, and tearful politicians. Weeping was a habit of the
time. So were letter writing and the keeping of journals, often by people who
took pains to write well and wittily. Spelling and punctuation might have been
a bit ad-lib, but what does that matter when the material is fascinating? Ms.
Murray has clearly enjoyed collecting this mass of gaudy trivialities, and
anyone with a taste for informal history will enjoy reading it. The period
produced splendidly mischievous cartoonists, whose work adds to the pleasure of
The Dragon Hunt
by Tran Vu, translated by Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong.
160 pages, $21.00.
The author left Vietnam at the age of sixteen for life in France. The
first story in this collection is realistic and autobiographical -- a chilling
account of the miseries endured by refugees aboard an overcrowded boat aground
on a coral reef. The other stories have to do with refugees isolated in a strange
country and with war survivors in Vietnam, where the author has visited more than
once. He describes a formerly prosperous town where buildings survive but most
of the people have left as looking "like a corpse someone had laid out to bury."
The title story is a savage summary of Vietnam's long and bloody history. It drifts
in and out of fantasy and legend, old enmities resurface, and brutality is wildly
misdirected. The stories are not pleasant but they are well written and impressive
for the author's ability to compress large-scale realities into concisely imagined
Winston and Clementine
edited by Mary Soames.
768 pages, $35.00.
Throughout their life together Sir Winston and Lady Churchill exchanged
letters whenever they were separated. These private letters, expertly edited by
their youngest daughter, evoke times and places and people, the characters of
both correspondents, and above all a warm and lasting love. In the midst of
wartime conferences Winston managed to get off lively reports to Clementine,
who responded with messages of affection and support to whatever alias the
military telegraph required. There are notable bits scattered throughout. In
1925 Winston observed, "It is now a convention that foreign affairs are only to
be treated in unctuous platitudes wh [sic] bear no relation to what is really
going on. This is called 'Open diplomacy'." The notes and connecting passages
provided by Ms. Soames do effective service and are often sharp and funny. They
should not be skipped.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly
Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Brief Reviews; Volume 283, No. 4;